WASHINGTON --President Bush today joined a chorus of prominent Republicans in blasting Senator John F. Kerry for comments they said demeaned the intelligence of US troops, after Kerry gave a speech at a political rally where he appeared to suggest that students who don't perform well "get stuck in Iraq."
But Kerry, insisting the comment was a "botched joke," struck back with a furious, nationally televised press conference at which he attacked the entire GOP for divisive campaign tactics.
"This is a textbook Republican campaign strategy: Try to change the topic; try to make someone else the issue; try to make something else said the issue, not the policy, not their responsibility," Kerry said.
"Well, everybody knows it's not working this time, and I'm not going to stand around and let it work."
The fireworks came as the midterm election campaign took on an increasingly national flavor, with both Bush and Kerry -- the 2004 presidential nominees -- back on the hustings on behalf of congressional candidates. Bush is fighting to keep a Republican majority in Congress; Kerry is gearing up for a possible presidential run by trying to dispel the idea that he didn't fight back hard enough in 2004.
At a rally at a college campus in Pasadena, Calif., on Monday, Kerry delivered a series of one-liners that ended with one that drew as many gasps as laughs.
"Education -- if you make the most of it and you study hard and you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well," said Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. "If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."
Republicans pounced on Kerry's comments as emblematic of the Democrats' disrespect for the military. A week before the mid-term elections, the comments were an unwelcome distraction for Democrats who appear close to taking control of Congress.
At a rally tonight in Georgia, Bush quoted Kerry and thundered, "The senator's suggestion that the men and women of our military are somehow uneducated is insulting, and it is shameful. The members of the United States military are plenty smart and they are plenty brave -- and the senator from Massachusetts owes them an apology."
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, and a pair of 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls -- Governor Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain of Arizona -- also demanded that Kerry apologize.
Kerry refused, and used his response to showcase his aggressive criticisms of the Bush administration's Iraq war conduct.
"Let me make it crystal clear, as crystal clear as I know how: I apologize to no one for my criticism of the president and of his broken policy," Kerry said in Seattle, where he was campaigning for congressional candidates today. "If anyone owes our troops in the field an apology, it is the president and his failed team."
Yet Republicans served notice that they intend to keep the pressure on.
"If Kerry doesn't apologize, we're going to beat him to death until he does," said House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, on Fox News.
Kerry aides said the senator bungled a line that would have made it clear that he was making fun of the president, a fellow Yale University graduate who has poked fun at his own lackadaisical attitude toward his schooling. According to Kerry's prepared text, as provided by his office, Kerry intended to reference Bush in that portion of the speech, but missed the line.
"Do you know where you end up if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy?" Kerry was to say. "You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush."
The comment came in the midst of a series of attempts at humor. Just before his comments on education and the war, he said that Bush once lived in Texas but now lives in a "state of denial."
The speech received relatively little media attention on Monday, with local newspapers covering it and including -- but not highlighting -- the comments on education and the troops. But as clips from the California rally spread via conservative blogs and Youtube.com, Republicans went on the offensive.
McCain -- one of Kerry's fellow Vietnam veterans -- declared, "Senator Kerry owes an apology to the many thousands of Americans serving in Iraq, who answered their country's call because they are patriots and not because of any deficiencies in their education. . .Without them, we wouldn't live in a country where people securely possess all their God-given rights, including the right to express insensitive, ill-considered and uninformed remarks."
Romney also weighed in, singling out the "many patriotic soldiers from Massachusetts" as a "diverse, educated, and prepared" bunch.
At the White House, Press Secretary Tony Snow called the comment "an absolute insult" and said Democratic candidates for Congress who are running based on their military records should state publicly whether they agree with the party's 2004 presidential nominee.
"Senator Kerry not only owes an apology to those who are serving, but also to the families of those who've given their lives," Snow said.
Kerry struck back with an unusually harsh statement that his press office said was aimed at Snow and "assorted right wing nut-jobs." Kerry dismissed Snow as a "stuffed-suit White House mouthpiece standing behind a podium" and went on to attack "doughy Rush Limbaugh," saying that the conservative radio host would "no doubt" attack him as part of a coordinated assault aimed at next week's congressional elections.
"It's a stunning statement about their willingness to reduce anything in America to raw politics," Kerry said in Seattle.